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No. 3 Arizona’s finding its collective rhythm offensively

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On February 1 the season changed for No. 3 Arizona. That day may have been capped by a 60-58 loss at Cal, but the biggest loss was that of sophomore Brandon Ashley. Ruled out for the remainder of the season due to a broken foot, Ashley was one of Arizona’s most versatile players on both ends of the floor. To lose a player of his status requires an adjustment period, with the remaining players needing to get used to new roles.

And after their 88-61 win at Colorado in which the Wildcats put together a second half that ranks among their best halves of basketball all season long, Sean Miller’s team followed that performance with an 87-59 whipping of the Golden Bears in Tucson.

Nick Johnson led five Wildcats in double figures with 22 points (seven rebounds and five assists as well), and as a team Arizona shot 50.8% from the field. Eighteen of their 32 field goals were assisted, and Arizona also racked up 30 points in the paint with Cal big men David Kravish and Richard Solomon struggling with early foul trouble. Offensively speaking, Arizona’s performance on Wednesday was another step forward for a group that needed time to adjust to playing without Ashley.

In their last three halves of basketball Arizona’s shot 54-for-89, which works out to a “solid” 60.7%. With their ability to attack teams with both the dribble and the pass, Arizona’s done a good job during this recent run of not settling for long-range shots. In their last three halves of play, 71.9% of Arizona’s field goal attempts have been two-point shots. And when they have taken perimeter shots Arizona’s converted, making 12 of their 25 attempts (48%) from beyond the arc.

The only player to have issues offensively on Wednesday night was Gabe York (1-for-7 FG), but as he did against Colorado (ten rebounds) the sophomore contributed in other areas. York accounted for five rebounds and five assists, one of three Wildcats to tally at least five helpers on the night with Johnson (five) and T.J. McConnell (six) being the others. And with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson adding 12 points and ten rebounds off the bench, York’s quiet shooting night was even less of a concern.

Arizona’s ability to defend wasn’t going to change as a result of Ashley’s injury. The offensive end of the floor was where the concerns lie and that took longer to fine-tune, which is to be expected when considering how valuable Ashley was. But if anything’s to be taken from the last three halves of basketball that Arizona has played, it’s that they’re getting more comfortable with their adjusted responsibilities on that end of the floor. And that makes Arizona every bit the threat to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

Gonzaga’s NCAA tournament chances take a major blow in loss to No. 16 SMU

SMU guard Nic Moore (11) shoots over Gonzaga forward Kyle Wiltjer (33) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)
(AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)
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Nic Moore scored 18 of his 25 points in the second half and added 11 assists as No. 16 SMU knocked off Gonzaga in Moody Coliseum on Saturday night, 69-60.

The Zags got 20 points and 16 boards from Domantas Sabonis, but Kyle Wiltjer scored just four points and shot 2-for-17 from the floor.

It wasn’t pretty.

And it may have been the end of Gonzaga’s NCAA tournament hopes.

Entering Saturday, the Zags had an RPI in the mid-60s, enough to keep them in the bubble conversation but not enough to make them anything more than a team that will be projected to end up on the cut-line.

The issue is a complete lack of quality wins on their résumé. Gonzaga beat UConn in the Bahamas. That’s a borderline top 50 win. They beat Washington, another borderline top 50 win. Beyond that? They swept Pepperdine, beat Tennessee and own a win over Montana. None of those are top 100 wins, and that’s why the SMU game was such a big deal. The Mustangs are a top 25 team. This was a road game. This win was the kind of thing that the Zags could pin at the top of their profile.

But Wiltjer didn’t show up, the Zags had no answer for Moore and they’ll head back to Spokane needing, in all likelihood, to win the WCC’s automatic bid if they want to dance.

POSTERIZED: Cal’s Jaylen Brown has his dunk contest entry

California's Jaylen Brown lays up a shot against Oregon State in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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Cal picked up a big win over Oregon State in Haas Pavilion on Saturday night, and the exclamation point was this emphatic dunk from Jaylen Brown: